Supersessionism and the “deep grammar” of Christian theology

I want to continue my summary of R. Kendall Soulen’s The God of Israel and Christian Theology (see previous post here). In chapter 2 Soulen looks at the traditional “canonical narrative” of Christian theology as it was formulated in the early centuries of the church and argues that it “inscribes the logic of supersessionism [i.e., replacement theology] into the deep grammar of Christian theology” (p. 49).

Let’s recall that, for Soulen, a canonical narrative is a kind of high-order story that serves to construe the collection of books that make up the Bible as a single overarching narrative. Soulen examines the thought of two pivotal figures in the early church–Justin Martyr and Irenaeus–who were key in establishing the traditional narrative of Christian theology. In Soulen’s shorthand, the traditional canonical narrative is the story of “creation-for consummation, fall, redemption, and final consummation.”

Justin Martyr, as an early Christian apologist, was eager to make the gospel intelligible for a largely pagan audience. Consequently, he emphasized the “cosmic” dimenions of the Christian story, portraying Jesus as the incarnate logos or wisdom of God. This “cosmic” version of the Christian story, however, has the unfortunate side-effect of “circumvent[ing] God’s identity as the God of Israel and God’s history with the Jewish people as related by the Hebrew Scriptures” (p. 36). For Justin, the Hebrew Scriptrues (which were, for him, simply the Scriptures since the NT canon hadn’t yet been established) are important primarily because they foretell the coming of Christ. He certainly saw the Christian God as the same as the Jewish God, but “God’s history with the carnal community of the Jews is merely a passing episode within God’s more encompassing purposes for creation, which are universal and spiritual in nature” (p. 37). The church–the “true,” “spiritual” Israel, replaces the “carnal” Israel in God’s plan for creation, and there is no positive religious significance to the ongoing history of the Jewish people.

Irenaeus was the scourge of gnostics who probably deserves as much credit as anyone for firmly establishing the Jewish scriptures as part of the Christian canon. So you might expect that he’d take a more positive stance toward Judaism. However, Irenaeus vindicates his anti-gnostic argument “by building on Justin’s supersessionist reading of the Hebrew Scriptures, and indeed by extending it in order to provide a framework for reading the church’s twofold canon” (p. 41). Irenaeus follows Justin in organizing the Bible in light of four key events (creation-for-consummation, fall, redemption, and final consummation) and he also interprets the covenant with the Jews primarily as a perfiguration of redemption in Christ. According to Soulen, Irenaeus does modify Justin’s account of salvation history by making the election of the Jews more integral, but paradoxically inscribes supersessionism even deeper into the Christian story. For Irenaeus, the covenant with Israel is more central to salvation history than it is in Justin’s cosmic-logos account of redemption, and there is greater continuity in substance between the two “dispensations.” However, precisely because the covenant with Israel is a prefiguration or preparation, it is, by definition, obsolete when Christ comes on the scene. “The Old Covenant is fulfilled by the New Covenant according to its inner christological substance but superseded and displaced according to its outward and carnal form. Hence the whole economy of salvation is inwardly ordered to the eventual dissolution of Israel’s corporate life into the life of the church” (p. 47).

The template established by Justin and Irenaeus went largely unquestioned for most of Christian history. The result, according to Soulen, is that the Christian tradition has downplayed or denied the significance of Israel and God’s history with Israel for shaping its theological commitments. In short, the Christian gospel as it is often presented is completely “detachable” from the Hebrew Scriptures and Israel. This leads to an ahistorical and individualistic reading of salvation that pays insufficient attention to public history and the “middle range” dimensions of life such as politics and economics, which are so important to the Hebrew Scriptures.

One question in the back of my mind as I’m reading this (and this is only chapter 2) is how Soulen thinks we should hold together or relate the “particularist” and “universalist” poles of the Christian story. He is eager to recover the decisive role of God’s covenant with the particular people Israel for shaping Christian theology, but at the same time I take it that he still thinks Christianity has a universal and “cosmic” message that goes beyond the bounds of one people’s particular history. It’s not yet clear to me how you maintain particularism without sacrificing universal relevance. Hopefully he’ll address this at some point.

UPDATE: Partly in response to Marvin’s comment, I wanted to add a little more about Soulen’s critique of Irenaeus, because it’s a somewhat subtle point that may not have come out clearly enough in my post. Here’s Soulen:

In sum, Irenaeus sees God’s history with Israel as an episode within the larger story whereby God prepares a fallen humanity for the incarnation. Coming between Adam’s fall on one side and the incarnation on the other, Israel serves as a training ground for salvation.

One of the most significan aspects of Irenaeus’ solution is the lucid account it permits of the Bible’s unity. On the one hand, a single economy of redemption underlies the biblical narrative as a whole from the fall to the end of time. On the other hand, this single economy is bodied forth in two asymmetrical forms, one temporary and prophetic, the other permanent and definitive. The Old and New Covenants … are one because they come from the same God and embody God’s one plan to redeem fallen humanity in Christ. They are distinct because they present the economy of salvation under different outward forms…. When the new comes, therefore, the old is done away with, not with respect to substance but with respect to outer form.

[…]

Curiously, Irenaeus’ solution to the unity of the canon reinforces the logic of economic supersessionism at the same time that it underscores the continuity of divine purpose that unites Israel and the church, Old Covenant and New. Just as maturity is the goal of childhood training, so Christ and the church are the goals of Israel’s history from the beginning. The Old Covenant is fulfilled by the New Covenant according to its inner christological substance but superseded and displaced according to its outer carnal form. Hence the whole economy of salvation is inwardly ordered to the eventual dissolution of Israel’s corporate life into the life of the church. (pp. 46-47)

Soulen refers to this as a double movement of “fulfillment and cancellation”: Israel is “obsolete” because its purpose was chiefly background preparation for redemption in Christ. The irony is that this obsolescence is a result of Irenaeus’ efforts to more deeply integrate Israel’s history into the Christian account of God’s plan of salvation.

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13 thoughts on “Supersessionism and the “deep grammar” of Christian theology

  1. Ah, universalism and particularism. I know that Kierkegaard had answers for this — depending on which of him you asked. But the best one, to me, is simply that only the particular can be absolute. While a generic can be universal, it cannot be absolute — only something specific can. The means by which this particular comes to be universal is by engaging in an action with universal scope. If it is not this God, this action, this context, what exactly are we applying when we make universalist claims?

  2. Sure, I get that and agree with it. I guess what I’m thinking is that if overcoming supersessionism means that God’s history with Israel becomes more integral in shaping Christian theology, then it seems like we’ll need some account of how that history (including of course the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus) has universal significance. In the traditional story Soulen is critiquing Jesus has universal significance because he provides the solution to some universal human problem (sin, guilt), which has often been cashed out in terms of a shared (quasi-platonic) human nature that is somehow repaired or redeemed through Christ. But it seems like this is the kind of “universalism” he’s criticizing–the kind that produces a gospel that more or less bypasses the history of Israel.

  3. But in all fairness to Irenaeus and Justin, they don’t bypass Israel’s history like their Gnostic opponents, who posit a High God that literally bypasses the Old Testament god by sending Jesus to rescue us from him and the world he’s incompetently created.

  4. True–and this may not have come out clearly enough in my post, but Soulen is clear that Irenaeus in particular really hammers the point home. Where he finds fault with him is in treating the covenant with Israel as essentially a temporary measure that becomes obsolete with the coming of Christ.

  5. Stop me if I’m repeating myself, but when I TA-ed Theology I last year, I discovered how taking Bible courses in a mainline seminary can ruin you for Theology. It was hard for students not to laugh out loud at Calvin’s claims for the authority of scripture based on the numerous prophecies fulfilled, or accept his concept of the OT as a shadow (photographic negative?) of the NT. They’d had too much historical criticism in OT class to swallow that.

    But the problem with historical criticism is that it reduces the meaning of the text to what it meant. And if that’s the case, then why study the OT as opposed to, say, the Gilgamesh Epic? So it seems like we need hermeneutics that are attentive to context, that don’t preempt Jewish interpretations or co-opt Jewish texts for tendentious Christian readings, but not by fostering a purely antiquarian interest in the text–a hermeneutics that respects the text as a living word for bot Jews and Christians.

  6. Yeah, I think that’s right. When Soulen talks about the OT having a more prominent role in shaping Christian theological thinking, I think that’s what he has in mind. It shouldn’t just be background or something that only has historical interest–but should inform our thinking and acting in an ongoing way. Of course, how you do that without lapsing into a pre-cticial hermeneutic strikes me as a tricky and important question.

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